Most of us are familiar with Islay and its distilleries turnout out those big, smoky, heavily peated whiskies, with more than a dash of saltiness thanks to the fresh sea air the whisky matures in. Islay whisky can be a love it or hate it kind of thing, so what do you do if you want to get those delicious marine notes you get from a seaside distillery, but without the heavy smokiness and peat?
Islay is not the only Scottish Isle to be home to distilleries, in fact there’s a whole (albeit unofficial) region, simply called ‘The Islands’, featuring a growing list of distilleries known for whisky with heavy influence from the sea, and at times but not as a rule, a bit of peat.
The Islands stretch from the Isle of Arran way down the south west coast below Campbeltown, up to Jura (right next door to Islay), Mull, Skye, Lewis & Harris, and the Orkneys north of the Scottish mainland. This wide geographic spread produces a range of flavours, all underpinned by the coastal salinity that is found across the board.
Let’s take a tour of the Islands and see what they have in store for us.
The Isle of Arran is located between the Kintyre Peninsula (and the once great Campbeltown region) and mainland Scotland and is now home to two distilleries.
The Isle of Arran Distillers was founded in Lochranza on the north of the island in 1995 and is one of the few independently owned distilleries in Scotland. As a newer distillery, they’re not afraid of a bit of experimentation, and have a range of cask finishes in their line up, and put together an amazing 100% Moscatel Cask for the Club for April 2018.
Arran’s second distillery is also owned by the Isle of Arran Distillers, and is brand new, having only filled its first cask in April 2019. Located near this village of Lagg at the south of the Island, Lagg Distillery is producing a more rich, earthy and smoky whisky. They’re experimenting with peat sourced from different origins, creating whisky very different in character to the Arran.
George Orwell described the Isle of Jura as “Extremely un-get-at-able” back in 1946, and it hasn’t changed much in the years since. The island lies between Islay and mainland Scotland, and to get there you must first catch a ferry to Islay, and from there back to Jura. While this seems strange at first, the reason is obvious – the island has one road, one pub, one shop, and one distillery. The population is only around 200 people. Many of these people live there for the distillery, Jura being the lifeblood of the island since 1810. Their recent brand overhaul saw a whole new range released, and the Club featured their all new Jura 18 Year Old, featuring a decadent finish in Premier Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux barrels in February 2019.
Headed north from Jura you’ll find the Isle of Skye. The biggest of all the Island distilleries, Talisker is another peated whisky, up there with the best Islay malt. While they only peat the malt to around 18-22 parts per million (many Islay whiskies are peated to 35-40ppm), the water they use flows over peat, which adds subtly to the flavour of the whisky. The distillery enjoys amazing views of the sea, which is not just great to look at – the wind and waves batter the distillery, adding that distinct marine note to the whisky.
Talisker have long promoted themselves as the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, but those days are now over. A 19thcentury farmstead has been given a new lease of life as the home of Torabhaig, a new distillery producing hand crafted, peated whisky. Production only started in January 2017, and we’re excited to see what they’re capable of producing in the coming years.
Raasay is a small island in Inner Sound, between Skye and the mainland, and now has its first ever legal distillery. Another new venture, distillation started in September 2017 at the Isle of Raasay Distillery. Using locally grown barley, the lightly peated whisky is being matured in three different kinds of oak casks and will be on sale late 2020.
Lewis and Harris
Lewis and Harris is the largest island in Scotland, out to sea from the northern tip of the mainland. It’s one island, with the northern part called Lewis, the southern part called Harris. While the island’s naming is unusual, we’re more concerned about the whisky. You’ll find two distilleries on the island, first up is the tiny Abhainn Dearg. Located on the west coast of Lewis, it’s actually the most remote and most westerly distillery in Scotland. Another relative newcomer, having been founded in 2008, but they do things the old way, field to bottle, and produced by hand, right down to filling and labelling the bottles ready to be wrapped and taken to the post office.
On Harris, you’ll find Harris Distillery – known as ‘The Social Distillery’ thanks to their ethos that embraces the generous character of the island and its people. Opened in 2015 with a big party, a peat fire burns at the heart of the building as a symbol of the warm welcome and life they bring to the community. The whisky is proudly made by the people of Harris, and set for release soon.
An archipelago off north eastern Scotland, Orkney was settled by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago. It hosts two distilleries, perhaps the most well-known is Highland Park. The northern-most distillery in Scotland and considered by many as one of the greatest single malts in the world, having won numerous awards over the years. With striking, Viking inspired bottles, you’ll find a full range of flavours on offer from sweet and fruity to aromatic smoky whisky. To achieve this, they use (and are the only distillery to do so) Ornkey peat, densely packed heather that dates back 4,000 to 9,000 years. It burns slowly, bringing a very distinctive smoky flavour to the malt. The whisky is finished in sherry-seasoned oak casks, and we all know what magic this does to the spirit.
Orkney’s other distillery is Scapa, a tiny distillery on the shores of Scapa Flow. While they are at the mercy of nature, they harness it to produce a rather unique island whisky. They run a single pair of stills, including a barrel shaped Lomond wash-still, the only one left in operation making whisky today. It was installed in 1959, and produces a richer, fruitier new make, ready to go to work in first-fill American Oak casks and become a smooth, creamy, honeyed single malt with just a touch of coastal heather.
The Isle of Mull sits between Islay/Jura and Skye on the west coast of Scotland. It’s home to only one distillery, which has operated under two names in its time, and still sells whisky under both these names. Tobermory was originally known as Ledaig Distillery, and today produces Tobermory whisky, a fruity, non-peated whisky with all the island influence you could hope for, and Ledaig, a robust and smoky peated expression.
Tobermory has been absent for a few years, but the good news is they’re back and the The Whisky Club is rolling out the red carpet for their brand new 12 Year Old as an exclusive one-off release in Australia this August. And if that’s not enough, we’re also flying one Member and their friend to Scotland to visit the distillery. You’ve got to be in it to win it, so get your entry in here now. Not yet a Member? Sign Up to the Club free today to get your hands on a bottle.